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How Al Horford opting out could affect Bradley Beal

How Al Horford opting out could affect Bradley Beal

NBA free agency madness has started early this year. Just hours after it was reported Tuesday that Al Horford would opt out of his current contract to negotiate a more cap-friendly one for the Celtics, he's had a charge of heart. 

If Horford leaves, would it make it more or less likely that the Celtics make the Wizards an offer for Bradley Beal? 

According to Sports Illustrated NBA Insider Chris Mannix, who appeared on NBC Sports Boston this week, made the possible case for Boston to pursue the two-time All-Star in a trade.

Ted Leonsis, the owner in Washington, loves Bradley Beal, but a new GM could walk in there and say look, I've got John Wall probably not playing next season. Bradley Beal has three years left on his contract. He is an enormously valuable trade asset. Can you get a Bradley Beal without throwing a Jayson Tatum in a trade? I don't know. But Bradley Beal is the next big star, I think, that could be available.

The Wizards are reportedly reluctant to part with Beal, but that doesn't mean there's a lack of buzz. In fact, they plan to offer him a three-year, $111 million extension when he's eligible in July, per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski. The Pelicans have shown sincere interest, according to NBC Sports Washington's Ben Standig, and there is speculation surrounding the Knicks, yet the Wizards have stood pat.

When it comes to the NBA offseason, however, Kevin Garnett said it best: anything is possible. 

The Celtics have the assets to make a realistic offer. They own three first-round selections in the draft—14, 20 and 22—along with two blue-chip prospects in Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum.

But much of it could hinge on Horford's decision.

The Celtics' most consistent player over the past three years, losing Horford would be a poor start to what looks like a possibly dreary offseason for the Celtics. If the Celtics strike out in free agency and Washington decides to move Beal, perhaps a trade would be Boston's big swing.

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Thomas Bryant might be turning into one of the NBA's best screen-setters

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USA Today Sports Images

Thomas Bryant might be turning into one of the NBA's best screen-setters

WASHINGTON -- Last season, the trade of Marcin Gortat and Dwight Howard's injury left a consequential void in the Wizards' offense that no one else on their roster was able to fill. 

After Gortat had for years used his wide frame to set some of the most effective screens in the NBA, Wizards guards and wings had to work harder to get their shots. Washington ranked 24th out of 30 NBA teams in screen assists and 25th in points off screens.

With Gortat and Howard out of the picture, Thomas Bryant assumed the starting job at center and became a mainstay in the rotation, but screen-setting was not his strength. He ranked 41st in the NBA in screen assists, tying Ian Mahinmi with only 2.6 per game.

Then at 21 years old, Bryant was learning on the fly what screen setting in the NBA - against the biggest, quickest and strongest basketball players in the world - was truly like. And when his first season in Washington was over, he recognized that part of his game needed some work.

So, he put emphasis on getting stronger and studying the tricks of the trade. So far this year, it has been a much different story. He is currently third in the NBA in screen assists per game, averaging over twice as many as he did last year. His 5.8 screen-assist average is right about where Rudy Gobert was (5.9) when he led the league last season.

On Sunday against the Magic, Bryant recorded 12 screen assists that led to 28 points for the Wizards offense.

"It feels pretty good to have that because we need it," Bryant told NBC Sports Washington when informed of those numbers.

"I think that's very good going forward with this team because I know we have so many guys capable of getting shots and getting to the rim. Me freeing them up is going to open things up for me if it doesn't open things up for the person I'm setting the screen for or for the weak-side getting open shots."

Bryant gives the Wizards something Gortat never did when it comes to setting screens in that he can not only roll to the basket, he also can pop out to shoot threes. And when he does roll to the rim, Bryant has the size, quickness and touch to cash in for points at a high level. He was fourth in the NBA in field goal percentage last season (61.6) and set a franchise record.

This year, Bryant is shooting 69.5 percent on shots within five feet of the rim. He is 13-for-16 on layups or dunks cutting to the basket.

Setting screens can help Bryant get points, but ultimately it's about assisting his teammates first and doing the dirty work necessary to help an offense work efficiently. The Wizards are third in offensive rating (112.4) and Bryant's contributions have been a big reason for that.

"Screen-setting has been a huge part of our offense. We set them all over the floor," head coach Scott Brooks said. 

"We don't want to stay in one place or one angle, we want to help them find better reads. There's a way to get guys open, there's a trick. Depending on who has the ball or who has the guy coming off the screen, you can manipulate the defense to get us the shot we want."

Setting picks is not the stuff that makes highlight reels or wins players MVP trophies. It isn't glamorous work, both because it often goes unnoticed and because it isn't pleasant to do. Bryant has to commit to building a wall that very large opponents will unknowingly run into.

That means elbows, shoulders and chests colliding in all sorts of combinations. 

"When you're setting a screen, you have to go in knowing that you're going to get hit and that it's going to hurt sometimes," Bryant said.

"If you're trying to get [your teammate] open and get your play off, you've gotta expect that you will get hit. When you have that expectation of you getting hit, that makes setting the screen easier because you know that you'll have that impact and you know you'll have to set the screen hard or hold it for a second."

Bryant is picking up all the little things that go into screen setting; how to brace for impact, the timing of holding a screen and when to break away, what he can get away with from referees and how to roll out of them to create his own offense. He says the only way to learn all of those elements is through experience in NBA games.

If his current pace continues, Bryant could establish himself as one of the league's best screen-setters, much like Gortat was for years before him. There is a long legacy of setting picks in Washington going back to Wes Unseld, who was perhaps most famous for the craft.

Unseld was the size of a refrigerator and, as the story goes, once knocked an opponent out cold with a screen. Bryant has heard of Unseld and his screen-setting prowess but doesn't want to take it that far.

"I try not to do that. I set good screens, but I don't ever want to hurt anybody," he said.

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Wizards' fundamentals will be put to the test against Dejounte Murray, LaMarcus Aldridge

Wizards' fundamentals will be put to the test against Dejounte Murray, LaMarcus Aldridge

The Wizards are hosting the Spurs on Wednesday night, and these days that sentence isn't nearly as scary as it used to be. 

Tim Duncan is an assistant coach rather than a player, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are retired and Kawhi Leonard is a full two teams removed from his time playing for Gregg Popovich. 

San Antonio is reeling at the moment, dropping six straight games. If they lose in DC, it would be the longest losing streak the franchise has had since 1996-97, the season before they drafted Duncan. But that doesn't mean they won't represent a significant challenge. The Spurs are well-coached, fundamentally sound and are probably due for a win to get back on track.

The Wizards play the Spurs on Wednesday at 7 p.m. on NBC Sports Washington.

They rank fifth in offensive efficiency and 26th in defense, which is surprising given their tendency to take too many mid-range jumpers and stifling batch of guards. On both ends of the floor, the Spurs are going to test the Wizards' fundamentals. That might yield fine results on offense for Washington, but the defensive end could be an ugly scene. 

Here are two stars to watch on the San Antonio side that the Wizards will have to be wary of if they're going to secure their fourth win of the year. 

Dejounte Murray

Murray's numbers won't bounce off your screen, but he's a bonafide stud Bradley Beal might have to deal with throughout the night. He made the NBA's All-Defensive First-Team two seasons ago as a 21-year-old but missed last season due to a knee injury. 

His defensive acumen and athleticism are still with him, and he might just be the best perimeter defender in the NBA not named Marcus Smart or Kawhi Leonard. If Beal is going to keep up the same level of production we've seen over the last week, he'll have to get there while dealing with an immense amount of ball pressure.

Offensively, Murray isn't much of a threat from the outside but he makes up for it with his explosiveness toward the rim. The Wizards defense has struggled with breakdowns created off of dribble penetration, so there's a good chance Popovich looks to create open looks off of Murray's drives. 

LaMarcus Aldridge

Moe Wagner won't be able to take as many charges against this big man. Aldridge, who's averaging 18.3 points on 52 percent shooting, does most of his damage in the mid-post area. Aldridge has more shot attempts from between the free-throw line area and the three-point line (62) than he does at the rim (41).

He has a multitude of moves and counters, but he doesn't get to the line much for a player who primarily plays inside the arc. For the Wizards to contain him, they'll have to play smart but remain physical with him on his catches. Don't let him get to his spot without working for it. 

Thomas Bryant and Wagner are more equipped to defend your traditional bully-ball big men like Joel Embiid or Andre Drummond. Guarding a player like Aldridge requires poise and self-control, which are not words typically used to describe the Wizards' interior defense. 

Between Murray's dribble penetration and elite perimeter defense and Aldridge's refined face-up game, the Spurs represent a major problem for the Wizards at this stage of the season. Washington's offense is for real, as they rank third in the NBA in efficiency, but the defense is the main reason they're 3-8. 

This game could go one of two ways. The Wizards can communicate more effectively on defense, defend with more connectivity and let their offense take care of the rest in a solid win, or they could continue to struggle and a fundamentally-sound team like the Spurs will blow the doors off of them in front of their home crowd. 

Tune in to NBC Sports Washington on Wednesday at 6 p.m. EST for all your Wizards coverage before tip-off at 7 p.m.

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